To call Skyfall among the best of the Bond franchise, as so many critics have done, is not quite the compliment that it might appear – even if it’s an assessment that I ultimately agree with. Viewed as a totality, after all, the 50-year old series is actually quite bereft of depth (say that three times fast). Certainly, there are some excellent movies at the top: I’m partial to 1964’s universally-heralded Goldfinger myself, as well as 1987’s less-popular The Living Daylights, among others. But the franchise really devolves after the best four or five movies. It’s like examining the talent in the Jackson family. Michael and Janet may give the illusion of an impressive list, but there’s a steep drop-off. Most Bond movies are Titos.
Skyfall sets the tone with a fantastic opening sequence. This is no surprise; most openers to Bond movies are memorable. This has especially been the case in the special effects era – witness, for instance, the awe-inspiring action with Goldeneye’s (1995) bungee jump rescue, The World is Not Enough’s (1999) boat chase, and Casino Royale’s (2006) human chase (with random parkour). Even 2002’s Die Another Day, one of the worst
Bond movies ever, contains an exciting hovercraft-filled prelude.* Skyfall doesn’t necessarily raise the stakes, but then again, it doesn’t need to. An exhilarating car and motorcycle chase through the heart of Istanbul gives way to an intense struggle atop a train. The overall style is Bourne, with one neat section that’s reminiscent of Jackie Chan’s Supercop.
*They should have heeded George Costanza and ended the movie on that high note.
What sets Skyfall’s opener apart is that it means something. More than any installment since Goldeneye, what happens in the first 15-20 minutes has ramifications for the rest of the movie, and beyond. As the previews have indicated, Bond actually ‘dies’ before Adele belts out the eponymous tune; unsurprisingly, he’s ‘resurrected’ shortly thereafter. But that process is treated with far more gravity than, say, Pierce Brosnan’s Bond getting captured in the Die Another Day prologue. In that instance, Bond had nothing to show for his months-long torture but a cheesy beard, with its lasting impact – physical or psychological – noticeably absent after Madonna‘s last lyric. In Skyfall, Bond’s death matters. He’s rusty, vulnerable, and it’s the case for the entire movie. Moreover, his death has ramifications for the other characters, relating to the choices they made in the heat of the moment. There’s depth from the beginning.
This is emblematic of one of Skyfall’s biggest strengths. While the movie treats the 007 franchise with reverence, it’s never limited by its conventions. It harnesses them, even turning them on their head. The self-awareness has been a staple of the Daniel Craig era (the gun barrel sequence and martini dialogue in Casino Royale provide two prominent examples), but Skyfall is arguably more effective at it than its immediate predecessors. Elements that easily could have seemed quaint otherwise are integrated into the plot, which is driven by an early terrorist attack on MI6 headquarters. It leads to a “back to basics” story arc – almost a reboot of sorts for the Bond universe within the movie. That allows the filmmakers to explain the minimal gadgetry, to use the classic Aston Martin, to re-introduce obligatory characters. All of this is seamlessly interwoven into a very modern story about cybercrime and terrorism.
The imposition of MI6’s crisis mode is especially effective given the involvement of established characters (namely, Craig’s Bond and Judi Dench’s M), as the circumstances distill them to their essence. Their fall from grace and subsequent action has embedded meaning for the audience. Significantly, the within-movie reset button thus doesn’t necessitate the same heavy plot burden borne by the true franchise reboots: consider the awkwardly tacked-on, Vesper-driven third act in Casino Royale (2006)*, or the wedding(!) in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). In Skyfall, Bond and MI6 are targeted from the beginning. It’s like this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises, but stripped of the first hour of extraneous, convoluted bullshit. Here, the protagonists spend the vast majority of the film clawing back. The fact that Bond and M confront their pasts in moving forward only underscores their redemption. Additionally, that element gives a franchise best known for its familiarity a novel sense of progress.
*Largely because of that and the interminable poker sequence, I didn’t love Casino Royale as much as most.
The overall result is that Skyfall manages to feel concurrently timely and timeless. This is no easy task; Bond, after all, is an anachronistic character in nature, a spy who thrives in a secretive world dominated by Cold War tensions.* However, the flaws of so many of the movie’s predecessors didn’t lie with the concept of Bond. It was actually the idea that Bond needed a counter – not just an antagonist but a de facto supervillain – that accounts for the franchise’s most groan-inducing moments. Ernst Blofeld and SPECTRE represent the most obvious manifestation of this quest: consider the volcano headquarters and rogue space program in You Only Live Twice (1967) (which obscured the smart underlying story about mutually assured destruction), or the brainwashed femme fatales in the Swiss Alps in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Overall, most of the villainous plots have been so grand as to be absurd, Moonraker (1979) worst of all.
*A debate over the role of James Bond in today’s world is actually introduced within the script. Its treatment is one of the few disappointments in the movie, as any nuance is lost in a literal gunfight during a government hearing. I’m not convinced that there was a real argument to be made against Bond (and MI6) – at least with Craig’s version – and neither were the writers, it appears.
The best Bonds have been the ones somewhat grounded in reality, even if they contain a trace of the larger-than-life element that gives the series its charm. Goldfinger is about a fat guy who seeks to upend the global economic structure by attacking Fort Knox. Goldeneye centers on two men who feel betrayed by their respective countries, who then commit electronic warfare for personal gains. The motivations are clear, the means and goals are relatively straightforward. No underwater civilizations (1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me), secret Asians (Die Another Day), or circus troupes (1983’s Octopussy). Skyfall falls on the right side. Even with an abandoned island getaway, Silva is essentially a mercenary. Yes, Javier Bardem makes the character unique, and supremely memorable. But his is not equivalent to Blofeld’s elusive global mastermind. Rather, at the base of it, he is a former agent with a personal vendetta in the tradition of Sean Bean’s Trevelyan. The movie is all the better for it.
Skyfall also manages to skirt another problem prevalent throughout the series: blatant misogyny. Certainly, the franchise has made tremendous inroads on this front over the course of 50 years, easing gradually from the vile lines in the Sean Connery-era Bonds* to the adolescent humor (and underlying sexism) of the Brosnan-era Bonds. The Craig additions has been far better in that respect, and Skyfall continues the trend. After all, the most compelling character is M. And of the two so-called Bond girls, only Bérénice Marlohe’s Sévérine falls into the trap of being primarily eye candy – yet, even she gets the opportunity to emote in some highly affecting scenes. The other female character, Naomie Harris’ Eve, has a story arc that is in fact one of the movie’s highlights, culminating in a nice payoff in the epilogue.** It may not be completely progressive, but Skyfall marks another step forward, to the benefit of its watchability.
*Product of their time or not, I’ve found that the encompassing misogyny places an indelible stain on some of the more well-regarded Bonds (most notably, 1962’s Dr. No and 1963’s From Russia with Love).
**Though I was really hoping her full name would be revealed as “Robin Eve Blake.”
Overall, Skyfall is incredibly entertaining and well put-together. At 142 minutes, it registers as one of the longest entries in the franchise. But it never feels as episodic as Casino Royale (144 minutes) or as busy as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (142 minutes). By and large, it’s incredibly smooth from start to finish, even managing a false resolution about halfway through that echoes the one in The Dark Knight. Skyfall’s structure is not perfect, nor is its content; the final Home Alone-inspired act in particular is a stretch. But it is also in that section that it achieves a depth unmatched by any Bond movie in a long time. Yes, while the series has always been cyclical in nature, it finds its footing at the end of Skyfall in a way that eluded even Casino Royale. The franchise feels real, reinvigorated. We’re presented with the definitive modern Bond, the Daniel Craig Bond. It’s a Herculean achievement.